Symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder

Symptoms can be wide-ranging and everyone’s experiences are different. If you have OCD you will usually experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.


Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, urges or images repeatedly appearing. They can be distressing and upsetting, which makes them hard to ignore. These obsessive thoughts can have an impact on a person’s wellbeing and trigger feelings of anxiety.

If you have OCD you may also have unhelpful beliefs about the obsessions. The difference between everyday obsessions and obsessions in the context of OCD is that it may be difficult to move on from the obsession and trigger long-lasting anxiety.

Common obsessions for someone experiencing OCD include:

  • Fear of contamination resulting in harm to yourself or a loved one. You may fear touching things in public places, shaking hands, visiting someone else’s house, or sharing This fear could lead to obsessions about keeping clean and germ-free.
  • Intrusive thoughts such as unwelcome images or urges which are out of your control. They can often include violent or sexually disturbing thoughts or impulses which are out of character.
  • Fear of responsibility resulting in worrying that something you did or didn’t do could cause a serious incident.
  • Perfectionism or excessive concern about doing things perfectly or evenly. You could have a fear of forgetting things or making mistakes

You may worry that explaining intrusive thoughts to others could get you in trouble or cause you to be labelled as a risk to others. Doctors and other health care practitioners should be familiar with OCD symptoms and understand that your thoughts are related to your OCD. Someone is only considered a serious risk if there is a possibility that they will act upon obsessions which would post a risk of harm to either themselves or others. However, most people with OCD are aware, to different degrees, that the beliefs supporting the obsessions are inaccurate.


Compulsions are repeated mental or physical actions that are done to relieve the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts. Actions vary from person to person but could include repeatedly checking a lock on a door or repeating a phrase over and over, affecting many aspects of a person’s life, like relationships and work.

When you carry out a compulsion, your relief usually doesn’t last long which makes the original obsession stronger. Over time, the compulsions may need to be carried out more frequently or take longer to complete. They might be considered a ritual. It’s likely that you know the behaviours are illogical but feel the need to do them anyway.

In the same way that anyone can experience obsessions, anyone can experience compulsions too. Completing regular tasks in a certain way (e.g. bedtime routines or cleaning) or learning a new skill all require repetitive behaviour but are a normal and sometimes positive part of life. For someone with OCD, compulsive behaviour usually involves doing something they would rather not have to do, and with the outcome of relieving their anxiety.

Common compulsions for someone experiencing OCD:

  • Contamination: washing and cleaning excessively due to fear of contamination. Usually the obsessive thought is that if you don’t carry out cleaning rituals you or someone you love could be harmed. This can have a negative impact on a person physically, emotionally and financially. Situations considered to be at great risk of contamination might be avoided while cleaning products can place a burden on household income.
  • Counting: you may go through a sequence repeatedly or when you perform a task you may be anxious to end on a ‘safe’ number. You may also feel the need to repeat words silently.
  • Checking: you may fear that something or someone may be harmed if you don’t carry out a repeated series of This can include checking lights and appliances, windows, re-reading things, and checking you have all your belongings.
  • Repeating: movements such as tapping, touching or blinking, routines or activities such as getting up and down from a chair, or going in and out of doors.
  • Hoarding: is where you find it difficult to get rid of items despite a potential need to (such as having limited space). You may find that you buy, collect and store items because they hold a specific meaning or belief. Hoarding can have an impact on living conditions and as such make it difficult for people to live in their home comfortably. Hoarding can sometimes be diagnosed as part of OCD or as its own disorder.

Some other mental health problems can have similar symptoms to OCD which are obsessive or compulsive in nature. Some examples include:

  • Hair picking (Trichotillomania)
  • Skin picking (dermatillomania)
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Health anxiety
  • Hoarding
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

You can find out more on our website about anxiety and personality disorder


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